As the storm raged around her, Stephanie drove along the feeder of I-10 towards Houston. She glanced down at the loaded revolver in the seat next to her and wondered if she would be given any cause to use it. Until tonight, Stella Scottsdale had been no more than a raspy smoker's voice at the other end of the phone demanding that Stephanie deliver what was promised.A long blast of a horn drew her eyes back to the windshield to a bright pair of headlights from a car in the oncoming lane. She jerked the steering wheel hard to the right and forced her black Mercedes back into her lane before they collided. Her car fish-tailed over the slick blacktop and hydro-planed off the pavement. The car bucked across the uneven terrain like an untamed bronco as it traveled down the graded slope. Everything lying on the dashboard began a mad-cap journey of tumbles and bounces as she stared wild-eyed at the approaching barbed-wire fence. She slammed on the brakes and slid to a stop. The airborne objects settled and became lifeless again. Unable to breathe, she sat rigid as a corpse behind her seatbelt as a soft tune from the radio ended and the meteorologist began babbling something about the premature cold weather in Southeast Texas and more rain to come. She caught her breath, reached down and turned it off. The reciprocating wiper blades raking the water from the windshield reminded her that when rain mixed with the thick gumbo mud, it produced quicksand. She mustered up her determination, pulled the shifter into reverse and pressed the sole of her expensive Hockley's down on the accelerator. The spinning tires churned up mud along with stalks of long grass and slung the goop inside the fender-well until it was caked on thick. She let off the gas, opened the door and peered back over her shoulder at the rear bumper that had settled a few inches from the ground. "Damn it." The pouring rain forced her to close the door. In the rearview mirror, she caught a glimpse of her face lit by the eerie green glow from the dash-lights. Damp cords of dark hair hung in front of her blue eyes. She scowled at her reflection, tucked her wet hair behind her ears and scanned the area for her displaced things.She bent down and picked up an object from the passenger-side floorboard. It was covered with a handkerchief which was gathered by the corners and tied in a knot. She used a long fingernail to pry up one of the folds and examine the contents. She felt relieved that is wasn't damaged; after all, it was buying her freedom. She returned it to the dash and resumed her search. She found her I-Phone only to discover an interruption in the service. Another flash of lightning ripped through the darkness and thunder exploded in the heavens. The storm must have taken out one of the towers. Stephanie huffed, tossed it to the seat next to her and settled back into the leather. Time was running out and she was stranded. "Now what?" She heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle, much closer than the ones screaming along the highway. She looked to the rearview mirror.A pair of headlights crested the peak of the embankment. She squinted against the searing high-beams coming through the back window and watched as a silhouetted figure approached her car. She reached down, locked her door, pulled the revolver closer to her and laid her purse over it.A set of knuckles gently rapped against the glass.She slipped her hand beneath the purse and curled her finger around the trigger before rolling the window down a few inches.A man stooped as he tugged the bill of his soiled John-Deere cap down to shield the square features of his face from the pouring rain. "Are you okay?" As quickly as his words spilled from his lips, they were encapsulated in white puffs of mist and ferried away on the cold wind."I'm okay." She gave him a threadbare smile that allowed her uncertainty to peek through. "But I can't call a wrecker; my phone is on the fritz.""Yeah, mine too." He glanced down at the wheel buried up to the Mercedes emblem. "I have a chain and a four-wheel drive. I think I can pull you out of here."She nodded. "I can pay you.""That's not necessary." He rose up. His tall frame was bathed in the bright light from the truck's headlamps. It washed away the color of his skin and he appeared to be a porcelain figurine draped in denim and topped with an iconic cap that symbolized a working man. He surveyed the overflowing ditch. Water was quickly rising to the front bumper. "I'd better hurry." He grabbed the collar on his jacket and gathered the rain-soaked material around his neck. "Sit tight while I secure the chain to your car." He turned around and sloshed back up the slope.As he walked away, she eased her finger off the trigger and pulled her hand from beneath the purse. She settled back into the seat wondering if the man was an angel sent here to watch over her. She wasn't particularly religious, but she had learned one thing when she felt like getting out of bed to occupy a seat in the back row pew on Sundays. And that was, that God loved everyone, no matter what. She thought it was plausible that He had sent someone to watch over her.The guy pulled a heavy chain from the bed of his truck and let one end fall to the pavement with a metallic clank. He walked the other end of the chain out and down to the Mercedes and disappeared behind the horizon of its trunk as he sank to his knees. As he hooked the chain to the frame of the car, she felt it tremble.He returned to her window with water streaming down his face and she rolled it down. "Put it in reverse. You can gas it a little, but let me do the pulling, otherwise you're going to sink it deeper and be stuck here until something bigger can pull you out. Got it?"She nodded."Okay." The man returned to his truck and climbed into the cab. He backed the four-wheel drive to the edge of the shoulder, got out and hooked the chain to the rear of the truck's frame. He gave her a thumbs-up and returned to the cab. A few seconds later the brake-lights winked out.The Mercedes jerked as the truck eased forward and the chain grew taut. A plume of black smoke regurgitated from the truck's tailpipe as the engine strained against the mud that refused to relinquish its grip. Finally the car began to rise from muck and mire and within moments, the Mercedes' tires rested on the shoulder of the road. Her car pointed back the way she had come. Instead of letting out a sigh of relief, she thought perhaps it was an omen.The man unhitched the chain from the vehicles, tossed it in the bed of his truck and returned to the driver's side of her car. She rolled the window down."That about does it." He gave the car a quick inspection. "I don't see any damage and the rain should take care of the mud."She grabbed her purse and began foraging through her wallet. "You should let me pay you something." She held up a one-hundred dollar bill.He waved it off. "No thanks. I'm not out to make money off someone else's troubles."She stuffed the money back into her purse and offered a faint smile. "Thank you."He nodded and returned to his truck. A moment later he drove away.In the rearview mirror, she watched his tail-lights become two pinpricks of red in the distance. She put her car in drive, made a U-turn and continued on her journey. The storm intensified and made it impossible for the wipers to keep up with the rain pelting the windshield. She glanced to her right at the overflowing ditch. She dropped her speed.Four miles further on, she spotted the Houston City Limits sign and the roadside cafe. She glanced at the time. Stella Scottsdale wouldn't be here for another half hour. Stephanie believed in being prepared for any situation and was glad that she had made an early start. She turned off and rolled across a parking lot populated by knee-high clumps of weeds that had breeched cracks in the concrete, past a pair of old-fashioned gas pumps that might have been painted a vibrant red at one time, but the paint proved to be no match for the barrage of elements steadily at work over the years. Now they were a washed-out pink and she doubted they worked. She noticed the front of the diner sagged to the middle and made the windows on each side of the entrance slope drastically downward. It gave it the appearance of a grumpy old man that had been disturbed from his nap. At the corner of the parking lot, a branchless dead tree poked up from the ground like a gnarly finger-bone pointing accusingly towards heaven. A large hand-painted sign resided at the base of the trunk that promised hot coffee and home-cooked meals. She found some comfort in that. Tethered to the hope that the establishment had remained open despite the storm, she pulled to a stop in front of the small wood-frame building and shut off the engine. There would have only been the sound of the rain if not for the fizzle of electricity coming from the Charlie's Diner sign that was affixed to a tall steel pole and dangling high above her head. She noticed a vine of Kudzu that had waged a slow and silent war against civilization by creeping up the pole to strangle the establishment's neon signature that was shedding light on the anachronistic scene. She translated it into an analogy that summed up her own situation. She felt suffocated by the social expectations of the clandestine society of money and being under her husband's stiff jurisdiction that was punishable by a swift backhand when violated. The murderous greenery would soon be perishing in the early cold snap. But she could not wait for the intervening hand of God, so she had fashioned her own method of escape. She lightly touched the object bound in white cotton. Flickers of red and blue lights filled the compartment of the car and startled her from mental flirtations of her escape.A police cruiser pulled into the parking lot with its lights flashing. She stopped breathing and her heart pounded. The cruiser made a U-turn, blasting the siren as it sped away. She filled her lungs and let out a nervous little laugh at her automatic response of assuming that she was already guilty of something. The wailing faded out and she stuffed the revolver along with the handkerchief wrapped package into her handbag. Stephanie stepped out into the rain. A mischievous gust sprang up and rustled the hem of her skirt leaving her decency to the mercy of the wind. She reached down and smoothed the material against her thighs before she raced to the front entrance, grabbed the handle on the screen door and opened it. A rusty spring stretched out long and warbled out a psychedelic symphonic welcome. She was confronted by another door with a hand-written sign declaring, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service. The shifting frame made the wooden door cantankerous and she managed to open it with one hard push. A rush of warm air brushed against her face. She stepped inside, letting the screen door slam closed behind her.A young woman standing behind the counter greeted her with a mechanical smile and then returned to looking bored while sipping on a glass of soda and puffing on a cigarette.Stephanie closed the door, looked around the otherwise empty dining room and quickly found a seat in a booth next to the window. She removed her coat and draped it across the back of the bench before sitting down.The girl stepped out from behind the counter and grabbed a mop leaning against the glass door of a freezer filled with ice-cream cakes and novelty pops. She slopped up the trail of water and mopped her way to the hem of Stephanie's coat that was still dripping water on the wood floor.Stephanie offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry."The girl showed no reaction to the peace offering. Instead, she asked in annoyance, "Are you going to order anything?"Stephanie's response came out as a question. "A cup of coffee?"The girl turned and walked away dragging the mop behind her.Stephanie rolled her shoulders in an effort to ease the tension that had worked its way up her spine and settled between her shoulder blades. She retrieved the key to her freedom from her purse, gently placed it onto the table and delicately began picking at the knot with the tips of her manicured nails. The spring on the screen door repeated its mad-cap-concerto and the front door pushed open. She ceased plucking and looked up.The newcomer noticed Stephanie, strode past the vacant tables and headed straight to her. "I'm glad to see that you're okay."She responded to the warm brown eyes nestled beneath the bill of the John-Deere cap with a smile. "I'm fine. Thank you." Her smile suddenly vanished, she tilted her head and her eyes became suspicious. "But weren't you ahead of me?""Yeah. I got down the road and realized that I needed gas." He let his remark settle before he stuck out his hand. "I never got the chance to introduce myself, Reed Cormier."She smiled. "Stephanie Richardson." She shook his hand, it felt like ice. "You're freezing."He pulled back. "Sorry.""Since you wouldn't take any money, you should at least let me buy you a hot cup of coffee.""I'd like that." He sat down. "What are you doing out in such nasty weather?""Taking care of business," she replied.His eyes stalled on the handkerchief. "Does it have something to do with that?"She shifted her eyes to the cloth covered lump, scooped it off the table and shoved it in her handbag on top of the one-way airline ticket out of Intercontinental Airport. She let her gaze stray through the window. A bolt of lightning flickered in the sky; it lit the tumultuous black clouds for a split second. A peal of thunder shook the glass in the windows and for a moment they seemed as though they may shatter.He waited for the rumbling to fade out and the glass to calm down in their saggy wood frames. "Sorry," he said. "It's none of my business."The waitress returned, set a cup of hot coffee down in front of Stephanie and looked down at them with hollow eyes. "Anything else?""Another cup of coffee," Stephanie answered."With cream and sugar," the man added.The young girl pouted her lips, did a one-sixty and made the short journey back to the counter like a spoiled brat that had been told to go and clean her room.Reed looked back over his shoulder and watched her dig underneath the counter for another coffee cup. He turned back around and remarked, "She's not a happy camper."The girl's adolescent behavior sparked a memory in Stephanie. "I can remember being where she's at and desperately wanting out."His eyes went to her wrist and fixed on the expensive watch. "It looks like you've succeeded."She unconsciously raised her hand to her cheek and ran it the length of a bruise that was barely hidden by a bad cover-up job and returned an empty smile. "My husband does well."He looked at the vacancy on her ring finger.She withdrew her hand from her face and placed it in her lap."What does your husband do?" he asked.She felt her suspicions rise. "Haven't you heard? Curiosity killed the cat.""True." He returned a warm smile. "But satisfaction brought him back."She felt her tension instantly drain away and took in a deep breath. "He has partners in the antiquity business. They buy and sell."Reed rounded a finger in on himself. "You could say that I'm in the business too." He let the tip of his finger slip away from his chest and returned his scarred hand to the table. "I'm the night janitor at a museum that houses some of the world's most rare and sacred artifacts." He shrugged. "The hours aren't enough and the money is no good, but it pays the bills."She rolled her wrist until she could see the hands of the Rolex."Am I keeping you from something?" he asked.She shook her head. "No. I'm meeting someone here."He nodded his head at the rain splattering against the windows. "Your date may be delayed by this storm."His remark brought a faint smile to her lips. "It's not a date." The smile quickly faded. Anxiety etched into her brow as she stared out the window at the escalating tempest and suspected that God had turned on her. A ribbon of lightning split the darkness and frolicked near the dead tree. A boom of thunder immediately followed.The waitress returned to their table balancing a cup of scalding coffee above Reed's head. It rattled on the saucer as she fished packets of sugar and cream out of her apron's pocket with her free hand.He reached up for the cup. "Maybe I should take that." He gently took it from her and eased it down in front of him with a look of relief on his face.She placed the cream and sugar in front of Reed. "Anything else?"He rummaged a crumpled twenty dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to her. "For the gas."The girl returned to her station behind the counter and lit a cigarette.Reed watched her blow a gray cloud of smoke into the air. "That girl needs a serious attitude adjustment." He turned back around, wrapped both hands around the cup, letting the warmth soak into his skin and brought his attention back to the anxiety on Stephanie's face. Before he could ask her what was wrong, there was a flash of lightning followed by a loud pop. Reed looked out the window in time to see a shower of sparks raining down from the transformer. The lights inside the restaurant winked out.A female voice called out of the darkness. "Thank God." A spark ignited the wick of a lighter and embezzled the darkness. The waitress held it above her head and stood in the dim glow of the flame. She looked at Stephanie and Reed. "Party's over, folks. I'm closing this dump and going home.""You can't," Stephanie protested.The girl held the lighter out into the darkness and chased the shadows further back into the corners. "Look, lady, there's no power." The flickering of the flame shifted the shadows across her angular face, transforming her features into a satirical parody. "Go home," she said.Stephanie slipped her hand into her purse, pulled out the revolver and pointed it at the girl.The sarcasm instantly vanished from her face. She quickly flipped the stainless lid on the lighter closed and extinguished the flame. Everything went black. "Please don't shoot," she pleaded as she backpedaled deeper into the darkness and ducked behind the safety of the register.Reed blindly groped across the table for the gun. A flicker of lightning illuminated his actions and she quickly jerked it back away from his hand.He spoke from the gloom. "Are you crazy? Put that thing away.""No," she responded. "Ten minutes, that's all I need. Then you can both go." She turned and addressed the darkness. "Hey, Miss Cheerful, have you got a flashlight or something?"The flicker of the lighter was the response as the waitress lit a candle and plunked it on the countertop filling the room with a sickly dim glow that left heavy shadows hanging out beneath the tables. She ducked back down behind the counter.Stephanie waved the pistol at the bar. "Come out from behind there."An anxious moment passed without any response. A second later, a deafening bang and muzzle flash briefly eclipsed the cadence of the storm and the discharge from the pistol left a hole in the side of the counter the size of a nickel. A tendril of smoke hung in the air that drifted off like a ghostly apparition.The girl slowly raised her head. Her eyes were large discs of terror. She stood fully erect and raised her hands above her head.Stephanie waved the pistol again. "Come over here and sit down."The girl took abbreviated steps towards them."Hurry up," Stephanie commanded.The frightened girl picked up the pace and scuttled across the floor. She stopped at the booth and sat down next to Reed. All of the blood had drained from her face and she sat frozen like a statue at his side.The hand Stephanie held the gun with trembled.He said, "I don't think that you really want to hurt anyone."She responded with a shake of her head. "Of course not. I just want my old life back.""Why don't you tell me what this is all about and maybe I can help you."She shook her head again. "You can't help me. In a few minutes, someone is going to come through that door. All they want is what's wrapped in the handkerchief. It's as simple as that. Then we can all leave. No harm, no foul."He pointed to the gun. "Obviously you don't trust whoever you are going to meet here or you wouldn't have brought that along."The spring on the screen door suddenly squawked out one long sour note that permeated the wooden door.Stephanie swallowed hard and quickly tucked the gun beneath the table. She looked at both of them with pleading eyes. "Please, don't look back and don't say a word."A thud vibrated the cantankerous door. It stopped shaking and another thud followed. It opened and a blast of cold air entered and rustled the paper napkins neatly folded on the tables. At the entrance, rain pelted the wood floor and a large silhouetted figure filled the frame. The person gave the door a hard bump with their butt and sent it flying back to slam closed with a loud bang. The cold stream of air that had rustled the napkins and carried the aroma of lilac scented perfume suddenly ceased. The dark figure struck a match, raised the sputtering flame to a cigarette and exposed a woman's thick features. She lit the cigarette dangling from her lips and exhaled. An ethereal mane of thick gray smoke surrounded her heavily made up face. She shook the match out and dropped it to the floor before propelling herself forward on elephant-sized legs into the glow of the candle. She stopped and stared at the group through the lenses of her horned-rimmed glasses and asked, "Stephanie?"Stephanie sheepishly raised her hand until it was at half-mast and then she quickly let it drop back down into her lap."Do you have something for me, girl?"Stephanie nodded. "Yes, Stella." She reached down and frantically dug through her purse. She presented the package in the palm of her hand with a nervous smile. "See."She signaled Stephanie to come to her with an undulating motion of her hand. "Well, don't just sit there, bring it to me."The swaddling had become slightly undone during the shuffle and exposed a hint of the secret it held. Enough so that Reed recognized what it was.Stephanie shifted her legs from beneath the table to stand up.Reed seized the opportunity to reach beneath the scarred top and grab the gun. He spun around and aimed it at Stella. "Don't move."Stella glared at Stephanie. "I thought we had a deal."Reed twirled back around and grabbed the handkerchief from Stephanie's hand. "Not tonight." He cuddled it against his chest, scooted across the bench seat and bumped against the waitress. "Move."Stephanie chided him like a mother scolding her child. "Stop it, you're scaring her."He looked at Stephanie incredulously. "I'm scaring her?"The young waitress who had been silent up to this point suddenly found her tongue and exclaimed, "It's okay." She broke free of the terror paralyzing her and stood up. She turned. Her eyes rested on Stella with curiosity.Reed climbed out of the booth and wagged the pistol at Stella. "Now, get out of the way."Stella contended the confrontation by shrugging her shoulders and taking a step sideways. "Sure." She plucked the cigarette from her mouth with sausage-sized fingers and dropped it to the floor where she snubbed it out with the square toe of her shoe. She waddled a few more steps with the floorboards giving birth to creaks and groans beneath her feet. She licked her tongue across the cracked coat of red lipstick and said, "But you can leave that. It's nothing but a worthless family trinket that belonged to my grandfather.""Don't patronize me," he shot back. "I know what this is."Stella strategically placed her body back in front of the entrance and stared at him defiantly. A bolt of lightning flickered in the windows and briefly transformed her overdone makeup on her basketball-sized head into the face of Stella, the mad-crack-clown.Reed fired off a shot.The bullet had missed her by centimeters and struck the daily menu sign that was slightly off to the right behind her and splintered the special of the day.He cocked the hammer back. "Next time, I won't miss."Terror returned to the waitress's angular features. She cupped her hands over her ears and chanted, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod...."The annoyance with the girl's mantra got the better of Stella and she erupted like a volcano. "SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN!"The waitress quickly returned to a dormant state and obediently sank down in a chair at one of the neighboring tables.Stella reached into one of the pockets on her jacket and pulled out an overstuffed envelope. Her chunky fingers failed her as she clumsily fumbled through the contents. Impatience got the better of her; she yanked a hand full of cash from the envelope and presented to Reed. "Twenty-five thousand dollars for what you have in your hand.""Wait!" Stephanie jumped up and intervened. "You and I had a deal. Remember?"Stella pulled the corners of her mouth together in a pucker as she savored Stephanie's remark for a moment. Then she shook her head and replied with a reserved tone in her voice, "Uhhhh no." She flipped her finger out like a switch blade and directed it at the thing in Reed's hand. "I'm going to make the deal with whoever possesses that precious item."Stephanie clawed at the handkerchief-clad object. "Give it back."He pushed her away and addressed Stella. "I don't want your money." He raised the object in the air and exalted it over his head. "This is worth more than money to me." He brought it down and placed it inside his denim jacket.Stephanie was flabbergasted. She had spent months covertly contacting prospective buyers for the object that she had taken from her husband's private collection tonight and it was about to walk out the door. Her eyes rounded out big and she exclaimed, "I can't let you walk out of here with that."He beaded the pistol on her. "I don't think you have much of a choice."She stepped away from the end of the barrel.Reed turned the gun on Stella. "Step aside."She grudgingly complied with a scowl on her face.He made a slow trek across the floor swinging the gun back and forth between the two parties like a nervous gunman that had just robbed a bank. When he reached the front of the diner, he edged cautiously around Stella. The spring gave one last squawky farewell as he departed out the door.Outside, the storm was subsiding despite the weatherman's predictions. Reed climbed into the dry compartment of his truck, started the engine and drove across the parking lot where it met the feeder and stopped. He reached inside his jacket, removed the prize and laid it on the seat. He pulled out a knife, unfolded the sharp blade and carefully sliced through the knot. He rolled the window down, picked up the treasure to remove its veil and tossed the cloth into the rainwater that was eddying swiftly along the curb. It sailed the gutter like a toy boat and was swallowed by the open drain of the storm sewer. He tossed the gun with momentum and it accurately hit the drain and disappeared. One thing that he had learned during his career of being at the top end of a dust-mop at the museum, was that the value of art wasn't about money. The real value was in the faces and the eyes of the patrons as they exited the museum still in awe of the creations inspired by the divine and brought into existence by corporeal hands. He lightly touched the Kreskin Carving that had been missing for over sixty years. He knew exactly where to place it. There was a vacant glass display case in the museum where it would be safe under lock and key. He placed the treasure at his side, rolled the window up and drove away.
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